You take games too seriously.

An Interview with Leigh Alexander: Part 2 of 3


You may remember a couple weeks ago I sat down with game journalist extraordinaire, Leigh Alexander, to get her take on the industry, the media, and the games she loves. Now, we’ve got the second part of her interview ready to go (part one’s right here). This time, she speaks about the industry—from the Fat Cats to the have and have-nots of DLC to open-source development. And if this interview’s not enough Leigh for you, check out her wonderful Kotaku article investigating the cathartic appeal of GTA IV’s Liberty City for the residents of New York’s rougher neighborhoods.

So, without further ado, part two of our interview.

Over the past two gaming generations, big-business game studio’s like EA have developed a negative image over tentative buy-outs, employer relations, and license exclusivity (in EA’s case, their ownership of the NFL license). What are your feelings on the mega-studios’ role in the industry?

Leigh Alexander:
One of the things I’ve never bought, whether in the videogame industry or anywhere else, is this idea that big business, “big corporate” always has to be evil. People always dump on EA, but if you were to walk in there, you’re not going to see Darth Vader sitting in the Death Star. I think you’d see a building full of game developers who care about the work they’re doing, individual people who want to do a good job, and who want to make enough money so that they don’t lose their jobs. They’re working 80-hour weeks—yeah, of course they want to make money. They’re people like we are. People write to me who work on these games, and they’re good people like us who like their games and like their work. It’s true there are decisions being made with investors in mind before the audience is in mind, but that’s how the world works. It sucks, but they’re not your friends – they’re there to do a job.

The thing that gets me is whenever there’s not a scandal going on, the topic of discussion on the Internet is “how can we make games deeper?” We say, “It needs to be richer, it needs to be better, we want it more immersive, it needs to be more realistic, we want more explosions, we want more, more, more, more.” More multiplayer, there are not enough maps, et et cetera.

Guess what? It costs money to do that. It costs the developers a lot of money. In fact, it costs them more than we realize. I know nothing about the actual pound for pound cost of making games, but, at the least, I know it costs millions of dollars. Well, these companies can’t lose money on the games they make, because their stock will devalue, they don’t turn profits, their investors sell and then they have no development budget. Any given game company, even if it looks like a fat cat billionaire, could just as easily be a hair away from in the hole. It’s enormously volatile even over short periods of times. Look at Atari. [Mimes a downward spiral]. Look at Activision [Reverses it]. Some people think [Activision’s] bigger than EA now. This can turn on a dime.

[These companies] start at the books before they even go into development. They say, “this is how much we need to make to be risk averse.” If the game does not do as well as they planned, developers lose jobs, budgets for the next game get cut, things get delayed. Things we don’t like happen when games don’t make the money the companies set out to make. It’s not like John Riccitello [EA’s CEO] is going to roll your money into a cigar and smoke it. Lots of times vilify companies like EA, but they’re very carefully planning “is this a good investment or not.” The thing about the industry being that volatile is they have to naturally be risk-averse. They have to make games they know will sell. Things that are very different don’t often make it through in this market. It’s not worth the risk to the game company. It’s not just enough to make a good game; they have to make good decisions too. That’s their responsibility to their employees and their investors, and just because that comes before the audience sometimes doesn’t mean the people behind these companies are evil warlords.

Downloadable content, open-source development, and the need to make a buck after the jump…

HC: Another topic of contention amongst gamers is the rise of downloadable content (DLC). Do you think studios use DLC to shake the pennies out of our pockets or is it just a necessary financial avenue for the studios’ survival?

LA: People always complain they’re trying to get more money out of us. Yes, they want to make more money, because they’re running out of choices. The high cost of development really limits the mobility of the industry as a whole. Pretty soon they’ll be unable to do anything, but sequels. So, they’re trying to think of ways games can be more than highly priced one-shot experiences. The word they use is ‘long tail,’ and they say, “How can we create a game that has staying power in the market?” There are several ways to do this, but the game needs to continue to have value beyond its launch week for it to be worth the cost of development. Companies are aware now there’s a point at which we’ll stop going to the cash register. You’d see a huge drop off. Like, an $80 game theoretically costs a lot more to make than a $60 game, and, hopefully, at $80 they’ll make more money, but people aren’t going to go to the store for that. There’s a peak. [Companies] are looking for alternative ways that they can make money from their game so they don’t have to charge us as much. “Yes, we’ll sell you a $60 game, but over time, if it’s worth that much to you, you can make it an $80 game. If you love this game, you’ll pay us more. If you pick it up and hate it, you don’t buy it anymore.” So I definitely disagree with the point of view that looks at the industry as if they’re going to do anything to make more money off of you. Yes, that’s what it’s about, but not because they’re getting fat off profits at our expense. It’s because the industry is so volatile, and they’re moving so much money around in a high-risk environment.

HC: DLC will always be tied to the issue of those who have it and those who don’t. DO you think this “have and have not dilemma” affects game play, specifically in multiplayer games?

It’s difficult in multiplayer games, and MMOs are already fighting with this because nobody is going to retail for PC anymore and nobody is paying subscription fees. They want to try before they buy. I think we’re on the right track with something like Hellgate [London], where if you don’t think it’s very good, which a lot of people didn’t, you can play it for free. If you love it, which probably some people do, you pay a tiered subscription. If you’re hardcore into a game and you’re going to spend 60 hours a week in it, that’s maybe 30 bucks a month to you, though I don’t know the exact costs. And you’d be happy to pay that if you’re that into the game. If you’re going to be one of those people who’s going to [play] a few times a month, and you don’t want it to be eating into your wallet every month when you’re not using it, then play for free.

I think, though, the people that are “have nots” won’t mind, because if they cared they would buy it, just like they do at retail. I think it’s going to take a long time for [companies] to develop a cost structure that people find doable and fair, though. For example, a lot of people are young. They don’t have credit cards. Their mom’s not going to give them her credit card so they can buy more guns on the computer. Parents aren’t going to do that. And the game companies know this. So companies like Nexon in Asia sell pre-paid cards. They do it here now for Maple story. They sell cards in Target, and you buy your kid a $10 card, and they can plug in the card and buy themselves $10 worth of in-game shit. To some extent people will have and some people won’t, but hopefully the developers have made a game where enough can be got by playing that the other stuff is bonus. Should they offer things as DLC that give a distinctive advantage? No, of course not. It would have to be done with a firm hand on game balance, and with a firm hand on the pricing model.

HC: Recently, Insomniac games made an effort to help developers by opening Nocturnal Initiatives, which offers various parts of Insomniac source code. This pseudo-open-source method between studios could be a great solution for trimming development costs. Do you think we’ll see more studios take this leap?

They will never do that. A lot of people are advocating that, but it will never happen. I think I will be dead before that ever happens. If it hasn’t happened on computers, it hasn’t happened in operating systems, it definitely won’t happen in games. I think they have the ability to move certain pieces of content from Wii to Playstation to 360 if they wanted, but they wouldn’t do it. They will not all sit down and shake hands. They’re too competitive. They’re too proprietary. And to some extent there are hardware differences. Both developers and hardware makers are establishing their own place in the market, and they want to own it. They don’t want a level playing field.


Filed under: Commentary, Industry, interview, , , , , , ,

One Response

  1. Get to the part where you ask her out for me.

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